How do you improve Civilization? It's an icon - a bastion of PC gaming. Changing the rubric of Meier's opus would be like removing the Beauty Contest card in Monopoly, turning Professor Plum green, or reintroducing the controversial 1976 Double-Nip rule back into Mornington Crescent (third edition). In short, there'd be fighting in the streets.
Civ III played it safe, almost too safe, and now Civ IV becomes the prodigal son - reappearing on our doorsteps fresh, reformed, tweaked, tucked and with a few extra features moved slightly out of view under its well-toned arm. Oh, and it's a masterpiece. Did I mention that? A bonafide classic that's politely informing Age Of Empires III that it's raining while pissing all over its shoes.
For those 14 years late to the party it falls to me to act as both pusher and pimp, so if established hacks could take a few steps back then I'll address the masses. Civ sees you direct the path of human society from club-wielding warrior through to the space age: you explore, found cities, research technology, trade, wage war and engage in all manner of nefarious diplomacy to ensure that your race (be they English, Roman or whatever) comes out on top, hits the stars first, gets voted the head of the United Nations, or does one of several other notable achievements. It's turn-based, and it's the greatest board game ever created; although seeing as there's so much to it, it's rubbish when played on a board and as such lives in your PC instead.
So what's new in this iteration? Well, let's start with the warm niceness and the gloss, seeing as that's what strikes you first after installation. Beautiful world music chants in the background, giant globes spin, Leonard Nimoy mumbles relevant quotations whenever you discover a new technology: you're put straight into a cosy mindset that lies halfway between the striding animals of The Lion King and The Discovery Channel.
This snugness doesn't really spread to the graphics (someone standing behind me politely informed me that it "looks like it's been kicked in the face"), but by its very nature Civ isn't a game in which you care much about visual niceties. Besides, everything is as colourful, decent and obvious as you'd ever need it to be. There is the zoomy (and slightly spinny) camera that all the marketing blurb demands these days but, quite frankly, who cares? This is Civ!
Having spent several evenings blankly staring into the mid-distance and pondering my nascent war with the Egyptians and wondering quite whether I can trust George Washington, I come to you as an addict with no hope of rehabilitation. I dream about it. I sit on public transport thinking about where I've gone wrong with my precious English race and what I'll do differently with my next civilisation. I sit and stew about the infamous time in which I'd left my capital city (which I've been calling 'Will is Cool' since 1991) completely unguarded - allowing those bastard Romans to sneak in from my largely unpopulated Northern coast and take it without warning. In fact, I'm still fuming about that, absolutely bastard livid. I'm sitting here with my blood boiling at the impunity of a computer-generated race of Buddhist Romans, and I desperately want revenge - in this life or the next. And this, my friend, is the power of the Civ.
NEW TRICKS, OLD DOG
What's new, though? Well to kick off there are the great people, engineers, artists, prophets, scientists, merchants and the like, who appear at intervals (encouraged by any wonders of the world you may have up your sleeve) and conjure up helpful bonuses - aiding city growth, researching stuff extra quick or perhaps double-teaming with other great minds and starting up a golden age of innovation. This all works very well, and certainly isn't quite as fiddly as the (nevertheless welcome) addition of religion - something that adds another layer to the Neapolitan ice cream that is Meier's